Distinguishing Los Olivos: Area Moves Closer to Federal Recognition

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/7/15

The Brander Vineyard in the soon-to-be Los Olivos District AVA
This week, Santa Barbara County got one step closer to establishing its newest American Viticultural Area.  The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB) opened up a 60-day comment period, allowing the public to offer arguments for and against the establishment of the Los Olivos District.  Once the deadline passes, and barring any major objections, this brand new AVA could become reality by summer.

“I’m very excited about it because I’ve been doing research for this for 10 years,” says winemaker Fred Brander, who wrote the Los Olivos District AVA petition and submitted it to the TTB in April of 2013, after a year’s worth of corrections.  The current comment period is “the final step,” he adds, and “mainly a formality.”

Fred Brander

For wine growers like Mr. Brander, who established his eponymous vineyard in Los Olivos in the mid-1970s, AVAs are important.  They recognize that specific regions are unique in their ability to grow wine grapes, highlighting unique climate and soil conditions, distinctive topography and historical relevance.  Los Olivos District would be Santa Barbara County’s sixth AVA, following Santa Maria Valley (established in 1981), Santa Ynez Valley (1983), Sta. Rita Hills (2001), Happy Canyon (2009) and Ballard Canyon (2013). 

Covering some 23,000 acres, Los Olivos District “is the true Santa Ynez Valley,” says Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs, who helped Mr. Brander gather historical data for, and fact-check, the TTB petition.  “After all, this is where the water is.”  In fact, the Santa Ynez River marks the southern border for the new AVA, which is cradled by the slightly warmer Happy Canyon to the east and the slightly cooler Ballard Canyon to the west.

"The north extends as an upward grade to include our little hilly vineyard at 1,000 feet altitude," adds vintner Bob Baehner, who grows merlot on his 5-acre plot for the Baehner Fournier label he owns with wife, Vickie.

Among the Los Olivos AVA’s distinguishing features is the fact “it’s the only AVA in our area where soils and geology are consistent all the way through,” says Ms. Steinwachs. “It’s rocky, loamy soil from an ancient river bed.”

“We have broad alluvial sand that goes from north to south, with gentle slopes, not canyons or steep hills,” adds Mr. Brander.

That earth, along with consistently warm daytime temperatures, allow Bordeaux grapes to flourish here – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc – as well as Rhone grapes like syrah, Italian grapes like sangiovese and a handful of native Spanish varieties.

Winemaker Karen Steinwachs leads a vineyard tour at Buttonwood Farm in Los Olivos
The new AVA will also be unique in the fact it contains four townships: Los Olivos, Solvang, Ballard and Santa Ynez.  It has 13 vineyards that also house a bonded winery onsite, a significant number.  And it includes a large number of what Ms. Steinwachs calls heritage vineyards – historically significant properties like Brander, Buttonwood and Gainey that were planted to grapes during this wine region’s infancy, in the 1970s and early 80s.  “Maybe those early vintners juts had a gut feeling about this area,” she says.

The federal AVA recognition will allow wineries sourcing grapes from this region to use the phrase, “Los Olivos District,” directly on their wine labels, as opposed to broader identifiers like “Santa Ynez Valley” or “Santa Barbara County.”

Brander Vineyard
Ms. Steinwachs admits that the most significant name recognition still belongs to “Santa Barbara.”  But the new name stamp offers winemakers a new, more targeted marketing tool to use on specific releases and on wines earmarked for a specific clientele.  “We can grow everything [in Santa Barbara County],” Ms. Steinwachs admits, “but segmenting helps explain why an area like Los Olivos is so different and why it’s such a unique wine growing area in the world.”

Bottom line, “It better informs the consumer,” Mr. Brander adds.

The 60-day comment period for the new Los Olivos District AVA ends on May 5th.


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